Why We’ll Never Have a Decent Beowulf Movie

Beowulf: You're doing it wrong. Click for translation notes.

The answer to this question came while I was reading Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy. In comparing the original descriptions of Holmes with modern interpretations, Rachel Michaels comes to the conclusion that Holmes is portrayed as a high-functioning sociopath with increasing frequency because modern viewers accept, and often expect, flawed heroes. I’ve considered similar ideas for a long time.

Over the last few years, superhero movies have ramped up the amount of character angst. Heroes lacking in epic flaws are developing tormented pasts that darken their images, allowing them great periods of brooding. By the second or third sequel, the Bad Guys have managed to convince Society at Large that the masked victor is a masked menace, transforming the hero into a misunderstood pseudo-villain striving to protect his people from the villains and from themselves. He is appreciated by few, mistrusted by many. Of course, we the viewers know that he is the force of justice, but we like this tension and the dark image.

Now consider Beowulf. Does Beowulf have any flaws? Is Beowulf himself dark?

No, and this is why nobody is willing to make a good Beowulf movie. I can see all of you reaching to type in the comment box, “Wait! Our heroes have to have flaws, or they’re not interesting! A perfect hero is no challenge for the villain!” I agree—a too-perfect hero is boring, but this has nothing to do with Beowulf. Beowulf has been an honored hero for more than 1000 years, and his flaws have nothing to do with it.

First, consider what Beowulf is trying to teach the reader (listener, really). The poet announces it when he writes of Scyld Scyfing “Þæt wæs gōd cyning!” Beowulf is about what a good king ought to do. A good king should be a strong warrior, but that’s not all. He must be courageous, but he must also be well-spoken, polite, pious, generous in gift-giving, just in judgment. He should choose a wife who has these same qualities and has the wisdom to give him good counsel [1]. In this context, Beowulf’s personal flaws are irrelevant to the story. Beowulf is not about exploring a specific character’s worldview. It’s not about how a flawed person overcomes his setbacks to become a great king. It’s about how good kings face problems external to themselves.

Next, consider the monsters. Many modern viewers usually have flawed ways of viewing villains because playing convincing villains requires great acting talent. Many viewers mix up “interesting” with “sexy,” especially if attractive people play the villains. Beowulf doesn’t have sexy villains. Beowulf is careful to define the monsters as, according to Tolkien, the enemies of God. Grendel and his mother are clearly evil by theological definition: that which has rejected God is evil (see Augustine and Thomas Aquinas for more). Not only is Beowulf justified in destroying evil; it is required of him to prevent more deaths. Grendel is evil by definition, and modern audiences don’t jive with that. Our modern “everyone can believe whatever he wants” attitude rejects the idea that a monster can be categorically evil. (If that’s the case, then why have monsters?) We want lengthy backstory. We want falls from goodness. We want to sympathize with villains as victims of their own shortcomings. We love noble villains who do the wrong things for the right reasons. This type of villain might not have been appealing for the Anglo-Saxons because it’s not in the language.

Look at the words I’ve used above. “Enemy,” “rejection,” “justified,” “required,” and “villain” are all French words. “Evil” is an Anglo-Saxon word; the Germanic people understood the concept of an enemy, but the language cannot express the complexities shown in the French words.

The most recent version of Beowulf is the 2007 CG version. Beowulf will refer to the original poem, while 2007 will refer to the movie. I’ll be analyzing some problems with this one because it’s the most recent, and because though I’ve seen all of the Beowulf movies, I just couldn’t bring myself to watch them again. Writers Neil Gaiman and John Avary have some major problems with their interpretations of Beowulf. In this interview, they mispronounce “scop” as “skop,” which tells me that they have done even basic research.

The movie version of Beowulf loses all of the merits of the original poem by making it a flawed exploration of flawed characters. Grendel’s mother declares that underneath the glamour, Beowulf is just as much a monster as Grendel. This could have been an insightful interpretation of the poem, but it is poorly executed. Beowulf defines Beowulf as honest and courageous, as having qualities opposite of monstrous. In contrast, 2007 rejects the idea of true evil and insists that anything we may see as evil is only apparently evil, placing the problem in the viewer. It bids the viewer to consider who the “real” monster is, but the plot of Beowulf isn’t set up for that kind of interpretation. Grendel was not rejected by the Danes for being “different,” he was rejected for eating dozens of people. Making the jump from “murderer” to “different” is a long stretch.

2007 introduces new flaws by making the characters sexually deviant, a weak attempt at complexity. Hrothgar and Beowulf’s attempts to hide their adultery make them weak-minded cowards. No wonder all of their heroic qualities disappear. 2007 seeks to criticize everything in Beowulf rather than considering its original merits. 2007 does not seek to inspire viewers—it makes them want to thank (thank who? probably not God) that they are better people than those idiots on the screen. I realized that something was very wrong when Unferth became the most noble character.

Frankly, Gaiman and Avary’s opinions of seeing Angelina Jolie in 3D sum up their primary interests in this movie. I would not be so upset about this version if there already existed a decent version closer to the original. I would even be satisfied if we had a good movie that in no way resembled Beowulf.

I’m doomed to disappointment. Nobody wants a hero.

[1] What? Men asking women for advice 1000 years ago? Yup, it actually happened, people!

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